It was a passion project for The Sopranos star James Gandolfini, the limited-run series he would both star in and produce. But the Emmy winner’s 2013 death meant HBO’s The Night Of would have to go on without him. First Robert De Niro signed on to star as underdog attorney Jack Stone, and when that didn’t work out for scheduling reasons, another Emmy winner, John Turturro, stepped in to play Jack, a lawyer who finds himself defending a naïve young man whose adventuresome evening takes a tragic turn for which he may or may not be responsible.
Turturro, who won his Emmy for guest starring as Tony Shaloub’s brother on Monk, talked to Yahoo TV about what attracted him to The Night Of, the tragic real-life New York crime story that haunted him throughout filming, how easy it was to bond with co-star Riz Ahmed, and how his long personal and professional friendship with Gandolfini impacted his decision to sign on for the eight-part series.
On the binge-worthiness of The Night Of:
I know some people who have seen the whole thing, who had like a sneak preview or something. They said they couldn’t stop watching it. I’m not surprised, because when [I] read it, it was so… I just read it and I was like, “Wow, this is hard to put down.” I liked it because it was about the minutia and the cost of something. It actually gets even more engrossing, and I think it winds up really, really strong because it’s so human. It has to do with the whole criminal justice system and when we see it, a lot of times, there’s this other version of it.
There’s no real perfect hero, no real protagonist or antagonist. It’s what happens to people. Anyone who goes through anything big in life, there’s a huge cost to that. That’s what this is kind of about, how that effects the kid who’s accused and all the people around him. This kind of transformation goes on. The system makes criminals out of people, who maybe are or maybe aren’t.
On what most attracted him to the series:
The writing. I loved what it was about and how you got involved with all the characters, and then where it goes, too. I felt [the ending] was done in a very earned way. There are lots of different twists and turns, but it’s all done in a very human way, not sensationalized, which I think makes the experience deeper.
During the middle of it, I read the New Yorker story about that young kid who was incarcerated, Kalief Browder. I was supposed to meet him, actually. I was supposed to meet him, and then he didn’t want to meet with me. It was in the middle of the shoot, and I had done a lot of research and met a lot of lawyers, and this and that. I went to courts and stuff. There was one particular guy who was really helpful, a defense attorney now in Brooklyn, Kenny Montgomery. He was really eloquent. He was basically not at all like my character, but it was what my character would have liked to have been… so articulate about the cost of what he does. That made me understand why my character doesn’t want to do it, because you have someone’s life in your hands. If you’re aware of that, it can really be debilitating. So I just thought, when I read that New Yorker article, that is was really [like] our thing. Then, I never got to meet [Browder], but I was really effected by that article… he was someone who really stood up for himself, and it destroyed him. If he had just said, “OK,” and gone along with it, it would have gotten him out of jail. He would have gotten out, and yet, he said, “I want to be heard.” All those things that could have made him a very interesting and maybe successful young man, were just gone because they held him too long. He was a real victim of a dysfunctional system.
And I love how [writer/producer] Steve [Zaillian] cast it. You really think, “These people are cops and lawyers.” It doesn’t look like a television version of it, you know. Jeannie Berlin, she really looks like a prosecutor. She’s so like a f–king prosecutor, you go, “My God,” you know? I was hanging around, you see these people… I think Steve was really enamored by things that Sidney Lumet did in the seventies about the criminal justice system. I like the mixture of all the different kinds of people. It was very representative of the city and the world, the country that we live in.
On his character, attorney Jack Stone, as an underdog:
There are people that have tremendous potential, I’ve seen this, and tremendous talent, but they don’t have the aggression. They don’t have the drive, they don’t maybe… under pressure, it’s too much for them. Their anxieties or they’re too sensitive in some ways, to just say, “OK, I have to grin and bear it, get through it.” I always thought that he’s a very sharp guy. He’s a sharp guy, but he just, he wasn’t able to hold someone’s life in his hands. He wasn’t able to compartmentalize and do all that stuff, but he can see. He knows, it’s not that he’s not capable. He’s capable of it, but he’s just not used to doing that because he hasn’t. It’s come out in different ways. So he’s a person with a lot of potential there, who hasn’t realized it in certain ways, because he’s a victim of whoever he is. He isn’t a perfect guy at all, but he understands the system.
On bonding with co-star Riz Ahmed:
I was very lucky, because I connected to Riz really quickly. I really like him, I like what kind of person he is, he’s really well brought up. He’s really thoughtful. We actually [recently] went to see a play together, to see [The Night Of co-star] Bill [Camp] in The Crucible. It’s hard to continue to be friends with actors sometimes, because our lives are crazy, but it was easy to connect with Riz.
On the haunting nature of the story:
It’s like that Serial thing on the radio, it’s so popular because you all want to figure out what is inside of that person, but we’re also vicariously wondering, maybe not consciously, “Do I have that in me?” It’s also a nightmare thinking about being in any kind of position like that, being accused of something. It’s everyone’s worst nightmare.
On his friend James Gandolfini, who was going to star as Jack Stone:
I knew James from [A Streetcar Named Desire], because he did it years ago with [my cousin] Aida [Turturro], when Alec Baldwin did it. Then they asked me to direct one of the first season episodes of The Sopranos, but I was doing something else. Then they wanted me to be on the show, and I was trying to get away from that world… I didn’t want to be just in mafia stories and stuff, but I became a huge fan of the series. Then I worked with James a couple years later on my film, Romance & Cigarettes, so, I have a long history with him. I went to James’s wedding. I worked so closely with him. I think, as far as movies go, [Romance & Cigarettes] is one of the best performances he gave… tremendously nuanced, and he sings. I edited James for a year. I have a real full experience with the man, and I really loved him. Sometimes he could drive me crazy, but he gave a fantastic performance for me. He was a wonderful, generous person in a lot of ways, and I know that from Aida, and from a lot of other people, too.
So then they told me he was in the [original] pilot… he worked one day. He was trying to figure out the character, but he only did it one day. So I was like, “OK.” If he had done the whole thing, say it was all about him… I was a little bit on the fence at first, then I read it, and his manager called me. I talked to his wife, just because I was close to him. But it really wasn’t an issue, because I figured once I read it, I have to figure out what I would do [with the character], and that was it. I did think of him every once in a while. I know he didn’t like to sit in the makeup chair, and the guy who did my makeup used to work on The Sopranos. He said, “Oh, [he] wouldn’t have put up with this.” We would laugh about it. It’s a part of life, I guess.
The Night Of premieres Sunday, July 10 at 9 p.m. on HBO.